The history of the location of St Peter’s Basilica, the most important church in Christendom, goes back to the time of the Emperor Nero, who ruled the Roman Empire from 54-68 AD. Following the fire that devastated Rome in 66, needing a scapegoat to blame for the disaster, Nero persecuted and executed thousands of the Early Christians, many in his circus on the Vatican Hill. Although the evidence is scarce, many believe that St Peter was among the Christians to be crucified on this hill, and taken to a nearby cemetery, the Necropolis. It was over the bones of St Peter in this cemetery that the first church dedicated to the first Pope would be built. This was in keeping with the words of Jesus to Peter “You are my rock, and on this rock I will build my church”.
The Emperor Constantine – the first Emperor to make Christianity the official state religion – ordered the construction of a new Basilica in 319, which would stand for over a millennium. It had become in great need of restoration by the Middle Ages, and the first plans to rebuild it appeared in the 14th century. It would take until 1506, however, for the first stone to be turned in the construction of a new Basilica, and this gargantuan project would take 120 years to complete, when the Dome finally closed the roof above the altar of St Peter in 1626. The design of St Peter’s Square would complete the project into what you see today, in 1667.
The new Basilica that you see today was built in stages, and the original 4th century building was not demolished entirely in advance of construction, but walls destroyed as needed as the new project advanced. Therefore, for about a century, there were two basilicas on the site simultaneously, and services continued to take place there throughout the entire time it took to complete the work. For a long period, due to the fact that the dome was proving too complicated for most architects to design, services at the Altar of St Peter would often take place with a gaping hole in the roof above, meaning that there was no shelter from the rain during this period.
Fifteen popes and nine “maestros” – chief architects – would direct the project from start to finish, each wishing to leave their own stamp on the design, so there are many intricate details that a tour guide can help you to identify. Among the great maestri were Raphael and Michelangelo, the latter who was responsible for solving the problem of how to build the great dome, beneath which you can today see in mosaic the Latin words which remind you that the bones of St Peter lie beneath the dome, which can be seen from any point in Rome – a reminder that “Tu es Petrus, et Super Hanc Petram Aedificabo Ecclesiam Meam, Et Tibi Dabo Claves Regni Caelorum (you are Peter, on this rock I will build my church, and I will give the keys to the kingdom of heaven)”.
Today, you can climb to the top of the dome, and enjoy the best possible views over the Vatican City and the skyline of Rome! Highly recommended for your bucket list – if you are fit enough for the climb – but if not, you can take an elevator to the rooftop which is still very worthwhile, and offers an amazing view down into the interior of the Basilica. Then, take the elevator back down, and admire the amazing monuments, statues and mosaics around the Basilica, including Michelengelo’s Pietà, Bernini’s Baldacchino above the Altar of St Peter, and Raphael’s Transfiguration.
If you are not too tired from all of this, you can also go beneath the floor of the Basilica to see the Tombs of the Popes, where you can pay your respects to, among others, His Holiness John Paul II.
Exit into St Peter’s Square which is richly symbolic of the history of the origins of St Peter’s Basilica and the Catholic Church in Rome, with the obliesk which once adorned the Circus of Nero creating a focal point around which Bernini’s colonnades guide you into the Basiica’s embrace like welcoming arms, which also – when viewed from overhead – bears an uncanny resemblance to a key (as St Peter, the first Pope, was presented by Jesus with the keys to the kingdom of Heaven).
St Peter’s Basilica, and the Vatican City, are rich in symbolism, history and tradition, and the best way to get the most out of your visit is with a guided tour from a local expert guide.